The Reporters' War
A massive new anthology of Vietnam journalism shows once again that the worst fighting often produces the best writing.
By Scott Stossel
OCTOBER 12, 1998:
REPORTING VIETNAM: AMERICAN JOURNALISM 1959-1975. Library of America, 1715 pages (two volumes), $35 each.
In Harold Pinter's play Betrayal, an intense adulterous love affair blossoms and then falls apart. Standard stuff, except for one thing: the play moves backward in time, so that the first scene -- in which the two former lovers meet years after the affair to reminisce -- is the last one chronologically. The effect is devastating. The play's final scene, which has the two soon-to-be lovers gazing meaningfully at each other at a suburban cocktail party, is almost unbearable to watch: neither of the characters, eyes so full of hope and desire, knows what is in store. But the audience does. Turn back, turn back! the audience wants to scream. If only you knew the hell that awaits you.
The first few hundred pages of Reporting Vietnam, the latest addition to the Library of America's series of classic American literary works, have a similar effect on the reader. To those who know the hell that awaited the United States in Southeast Asia, the Cold War-addled absentmindedness with which this country backed into a protracted military engagement is painful to read about. In retrospect (as Robert McNamara might say), our expectations were ironic, and the ironies were poignant. A Time magazine dispatch from July 1959, for example, cheers that the presence of American military advisers is one of the main reasons "why South Viet Nam, five years ago a new nation with little life expectancy, is still independent and free and getting stronger all the time -- to the growing chagrin of Communists in neighboring North Viet Nam." Worse still are the more prescient statements, like this one from the New York Times in February 1962, three years before the first American ground troops were committed and six years before the Tet Offensive: "The United States seems inextricably committed to a long, inconclusive war. The Communists can prolong it for years. Even without large-scale intervention from the north, which would lead to 'another Korea,' what may be achieved at best is only restoration of a tolerable security. . . . But it is too late to disengage; our prestige has been committed. Washington says we will stay until the finish."
How right you were, Homer Bigart! If only you -- and the hawks in Washington -- had known how long, how inconclusive! Knowing, as in Betrayal, the denouement -- 500,000 American troops committed, 58,000 killed, and another 100,000 wounded; millions of Vietnamese killed or displaced; the American people devastated by military defeat and political malaise -- makes Bigart's prescience almost unbearable. "For, despite all the talk here of training men for jungle fighting," Bigart wrote six months later, "of creating counter-guerrillas who can exist in forests and swamps and hunt down the Vietcong, Americans may simply lack the endurance -- and the motivation -- to meet the unbelievably tough demands of jungle fighting." And this was still 1962 -- 13 long years before the last helicopter left the roof of the US embassy in Saigon.
Reporting Vietnam is a remarkable achievement: nearly 2000 pages of reportage, culled from what must have been millions of pages of writing on the war. Its editors have done a marvelous job, striking just the right balance between literary quality, narrative flow, historical comprehensiveness, and political diversity. The key to an editorial enterprise like this one, of course, is the process of selection: what gets put in, what gets left out. Inevitably, every reader will find sins of omission, and probably some of sins of inclusion as well. Where is Michael Arlen's "Living Room War"? James Fallows's memoirs of class and the draft at Harvard? Where are Bertrand Russell's antiwar pieces for Ramparts? Where is "Enemy Bombs Hanoi"? Where is George Ball, long the devil's advocate against escalating involvement, and his dissenting memo to Lyndon Johnson, which was published in the Atlantic Monthly? Why is there nothing from the Partisan Review? Something of the flavor of the more radical opposition to the war is missing here, which is a significant oversight: that opposition looms almost as large in American history as the military conflict itself.
But in a work that bills itself as "Reporting Vietnam," it is fitting that the emphasis be more on the events and impressions of Southeast Asia than on the goings-on back home (and there is, to be fair, some good domestic reporting on teach-ins and protests). In about 120 pieces by more than 80 writers, the two volumes of Reporting Vietnam manage to convey nearly all the important elements of the war: the almost inadvertent buildup early on; the apparent inexorability of the escalation (these books fail to give much space to the notion that there were alternatives to escalation); the difficulties of countering guerrilla warfare; the US alliance with an antidemocratic regime; the political and military difficulty of getting out. In a diverse mixture of wire reports, magazine features, front-page newspaper stories, longish essays, and book excerpts, we get tastes of everything from politics to protests, combat to culture.
Reporting Vietnam can either be read straight through, as a narrative history, or dipped into here and there, like an anthology. In this, it stands apart from many of the books in the Library of America series; while a lot of them are worth purchasing for their cachet (they're nice hardcover ballast for the bookshelf) or to keep as reference books, there are very few that you'd actually want as bedside reading. (The speeches and writings of Abraham Lincoln between 1832 and 1858? I don't think so. Melville's Typee, Omoo, and Mardi? Only if you're a glutton for punishment.)
But Reporting Vietnam is different. Almost every article or essay is engaging in one way or another. And, read in sequence, the two volumes have an unexpected narrative drive that rivals the best of Stanley Karnow or Neil Sheehan or David Halberstam (all of whom are strongly represented). The two volumes are admirably restrained in their editorial commentary; a date and a brief subject heading (like "Nhu and Diem" or "American POWs in a Jungle Camp" or "Life in Saigon") are all that precede the title of each selection. All other editorial glosses and scholarly apparatus have been relegated to the back of each book, where they share space with maps, a glossary of Vietnamese and military terms and acronyms, and a concise yet complete chronology that extends from 1940, when Japan took over Cochin China from France, through the summer of 1995, when the United States restored full diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Errors in the original articles have not been corrected, and now-obscure references are not explained in the text but rather in endnotes, which allows the original works to retain a kind of historical authenticity.
Many of the biggest names in contemporary journalism are represented here. In addition to ample portions of Sheehan, Halberstam, and Karnow, there are one or more significant pieces from each of such canonical journalists as Jonathan Schell, Malcolm Browne, Frances FitzGerald, Russell Baker, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gloria Emerson, Fox Butterfield, Walter Cronkite, Peter Arnett, Ward Just, William Greider, and Joseph Alsop. Most of the old standards are included: Tom Wolfe, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, on Ken Kesey at an antiwar rally; Norman Mailer on the march on the Pentagon and the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; excerpts from Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, about the protests at the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami; and of course Seymour Hersh, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, reporting on Lieutenant William Calley and the My Lai massacre. But we've read these; we expect to find them here. Even better are the unexpected pleasures: the well-known writers in surprising venues, the articles we'd forgotten about, and, best of all, the ones we've never read or heard of. In the first two categories might be numbered a young Michael Kinsley (he's "Mike" here) writing on Henry Kissinger for the Harvard Crimson; James Michener's detailed recounting of the shootings at Kent State in May 1970; and Senator John McCain's description of being a POW for more than five years in North Vietnam.
Then there is the third category, the pieces you haven't encountered before. There is Bernard Fall's 1962 profile of Ho Chi Minh, "the last of the Old Bolsheviks still in power." There is Malcolm Browne's piece on the Buddhist monks who immolated themselves in protest of Diem's repressive government, the beginning of which (" . . . the smell of joss sticks is one that I shall never be able to dissociate from the ghastly smell of burning human flesh.") calls to mind the beginning of Gabriel García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera ("The smell of bitter almonds always made Dr. Florentino Urbino think of unrequited love."). There are the heartrending letters of a pilot to his wife: "I am over here to do the best job possible for my country -- yet my country will do nothing for me or any of my buddies or even for itself. I love America. My country is the best, but it is soft and has not guts about it at all." There is "Eight Dedicated Men Marked for Death," Don Moser's piece for Life magazine on eight Vietnamese men targeted for assassination by the Vietcong in the village of Loc Dien.
There is William Tuohy's "A Big 'Dirty Little War,' " which traces the descent into barbarism wrought by both guerrilla warfare and the counterinsurgency techniques it inspired. "To the aching frustration of U.S. commanders trained in more conventional tactics," he writes, "this is a war in which countless hours are spent vainly tracking an elusive quarry through almost impenetrable jungle, muddy rice fields and blazing sand dunes. Friend is often indistinguishable from foe. Napalm and fragmentation bombs sometimes fall on defenseless peasants. . . . An appalling number of victims are women, children and old men; some are participants but most are noncombatants." A few pages later, he encapsulates the war thus: "the gospel as taught at Fort Benning is often inappropriate in the villages of Asia. . . . To many Americans, the war in Vietnam seems bewilderingly savage. Yet there seems to be no other way to wage it."
If you're only going to read one or two pieces, I'd recommend Daniel Lang's "Casualties of War," in the first volume, and Gloria Emerson's "We Are All 'Bui Doi,' " in the second. "Casualties of War," which appeared in the New Yorker in October 1969 and inspired the 1990 movie of the same name, is a horrifying account of the kidnapping, rape, and murder of an innocent Vietnamese woman by American soldiers. The story is emblematic of the moral centrifuge our Vietnam experience became; though the struggles of Private Sven Eriksson to see justice done provide an ounce of hope for redemption. And Emerson's piece, which appeared in Playboy in 1973, captures what I imagine to have been the rhythm of a correspondent's life in South Vietnam. It is almost impossible to put down.
Something about the awfulness of war makes for good writing about the human condition. Think of Hemingway's spare, existentially deadpan prose, emptied of emotion by shock or world-weariness; of the political and moral urgency of Orwell's writings on the Spanish Civil War; of the visceral revulsion of Erich Maria Remarque, or of Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, at the horror of World War I. It is not by any stretch of the imagination a worthwhile tradeoff -- bad fighting for good writing. But if good writing is what we get out of it, we ought to treasure and preserve it, if only -- bearing in mind Santayana's pronouncement about those who forget history -- so we don't repeat the hell that generated it.
"Vietnam seems to defy analysis," wrote Peter Kahn from the Mekong Delta in 1969, in a report for the Wall Street Journal. That was certainly true then, and it remains true to some extent now: there is still great contentiousness about the precise constellation of factors that dragged us into the war, about what we could have done to avoid it, about whether we could have won it, about whether it was a just or unjust war -- even about whom, exactly, we were fighting (North Vietnam? the Vietcong? terrorists? global communism? the Soviet Union? China?) and why.
But that is precisely what makes a work like Reporting Vietnam so valuable. It makes no broad claims to explanation; it just reports, conveys. I was too young to fight in Vietnam, or to protest meaningfully against it, but I'd guess there is more of the flavor and sense of Vietnam in these two volumes than in a bookshelf full of conventional histories.
Scott Stossel, the executive editor of the American Prospect, has written political and cultural criticism for the Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic, and the New Yorker.
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